Deforestation in Brazil's Cerrado savanna falls to record low

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Deforestation in Brazil’s tropical Cerrado savanna, which makes up a quarter of the country, fell 11 percent to a record low in 2018 compared with a year earlier, the Ministry of Environment said in a statement on Tuesday.

Deforestation in the South American country’s savanna biome totaled 6,657 square kilometers (2,570 square miles), an area larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut. That’s just below 6,777 square kilometers in 2016, the previous low since records began to be kept, the ministry said.

A biome is a grouping of plants and animals that have adapted to a specific environment.

This contrasts with the Amazon rainforest, making up 40 percent of Brazil, which has seen a 13.7 percent spike in deforestation this year to a 10-year high.

Activists have been concerned that deforestation could spike under policies proposed by President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who assumes office Jan. 1 and has pledged to end the current “industry of fines” for environmental violations like deforestation.

The figure for Cerrado is based on the change in deforestation between August 2017 and July 2018, the period used to measure annual destruction, as recorded by Brazilian space research agency Inpe. The statement did not give a reason for the decline in deforestation.

The Cerrado’s vegetation soaks up major amounts of carbon dioxide, making its preservation key to curbing greenhouse gas emissions and for countering global warming.

While the Cerrado is less densely forested than the Amazon rainforest, its plants have deep roots that lock carbon into the ground and are sometimes referred to as an underground forest.

Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s future environment minister under Bolsonaro, told Reuters on Monday that Bolsonaro would not gut resources for environmental protection, contrary to the fears of environmentalists.

Money for environmental protection is spent inefficiently and mismanaged, he said, arguing he could produce better results with the same budget.

Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Bernadette Baum